Philosophy Weekend: What Martin Luther King Endured

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I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.

I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.

Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.

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Ken Kesey's Mobile Transcendentalism

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Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey's 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.

This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady's driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.

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Philosophy Weekend: Rejecting the Apocalypse

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Here's a tough challenge for anybody: talk about politics, about everything our muddled, dysfunctional democratic government is doing wrong, without resorting to the following cliches:

  1. Declaring that the other side is evil.
  2. Declaring that the other side is stupid or uneducated.
  3. Declaring that the other side is so hopelessly corrupt that negotiation or compromise is pointless.

These easy excuses have become very popular in the United States of America, and of course the sentiments are the same on the right and the left. Many of those who find hope in the Tea Party movement believe that our government has been infiltrated by socialists or Marxists ("evil"), that decades of soft-headed liberal education has left Americans unable to understand and appreciate the hard edges of the U. S. Constitution ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D.C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.

On the other extreme are the frustrated liberals who may have once held some hope for Barack Obama's leadership, but are disgusted with the results so far. They believe our nation is in the grip of racist, hate-filled voters ("evil"), that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Sarah Palin-fan club populace knows nothing about history or economics ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D. C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.

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The Splendid Edition

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1. Look at this beauty. It's a new facsimile edition of a past illustrated premium of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, known as the Splendid Edition. Oxford University Press has published it as a replica of the original object, and it's attractive enough to get me started reading the book for the first time. The first few pages present a witty tale of manners and intrigue among Southern gentleman, in a tone somewhat reminiscent of Dickens or Thackeray. Good enough to keep me reading.

2. Augusten Burroughs's beleageured mother Margaret Robison has written her own side of the Running With Scissors story, a book called The Long Journey Home.

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The Borders Bookstore I'll Never Forget

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I'm very sorry to hear that all the Borders bookstores in the world may close their doors very soon. This is not, apparently, because the book business is slowing down (Barnes and Noble and Amazon are still viable) but because of specific business decisions that turned out badly. I hope there will be a last-minute salvation, and if there's not I will certainly grieve this loss. Say what you want about massive book super-stores; they are great places to buy books, hang out and hear author readings. And we need the restrooms.

There's one Borders bookstore I specially remember, my favorite Borders in New York City, though this store closed nearly ten years ago. It was one of the flagship Borders locations in Manhattan, and it was a particularly good one because the vast building that housed it gave it the space of a barn.

This Borders had three floors -- a small one, a big one, and a very big one. The lowest, smallest floor let out on a subway/PATH train concourse, and so it held mystery and romance bestsellers, comic books, magazine racks, bubble gum, CDs and playing cards. It was good that all this stuff cluttered up the lower floor, because it freed up the first floor to be something special.

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Philosophy Weekend: Adam Hochschild and the Serious Study of War

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Adam Hochschild, a popular historian whose King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa spelled out the full story of the Belgian debacle that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, has written a powerful new book about the loose coalition of pacifists and activists that fought bitterly against England's participation in the Boer Wars and World War One a century ago. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.

Hochschild is a rare popular historian who writes not about subjects designed to make male readers feel good about their masculinity (a visit to a bookstore's history section, after all, gives the impression that the Civil War and World War II were the only two wars ever fought) but rather about stunning or vexing episodes from our past that we know nothing about. I was not aware that there was a vigorous pacifist movement in England a hundred years ago. The invisibility of this past movement reminds me of the invisibility of the pacifist cause today, and Adam Hochschild is certainly interested in making the same connection. Here he is in the book's introductory chapter:

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August Strindberg's Inferno

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Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.

The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.

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Philosophy Weekend: Explaining Osama Bin Laden

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A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:

  • He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
  • He was a nutjob.
  • He was a religious fanatic.

I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.

Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.

A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.

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Barna Nemethi's Fashionable 21st Century Dada

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(I especially appreciate Romanian-born contributor Claudia Moscovici's articles because they fill us in on literary/art scenes we'll never otherwise hear of. Here she introduces Barna Nemethi, a current sensation in Eastern Europe. -- Levi)

Newton’s third law of physics says for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. However, things don’t work out as neatly in the world of art. There are some rules that govern the world of art, but these are constantly broken by new and innovative artists. One of the most creative and irreverent art movements was Dada, founded by a Romanian poet, Tristan Tzara. Like Surrealism, which later sprung from it, Dada was a broad cultural movement, involving the visual arts, poetry, literature, theater, graphic design and–inevitably–even politics.

Born in the wake of the devastation caused by the First World War, Dada rejected “reason” and “logic,” which many of its artists associated with capitalist ideology and the war machine. Despite becoming internationally known for so many visible artists and poets, the Dada movement could not be pinned down. Its aesthetic philosophy was anti-aesthetic; its artistic contribution was anti-art. As Hugo Ball stated, “For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”

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Philosophy Weekend: Nicholson Baker's Case for Pacifism

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I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts -- Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One -- but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper's Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country's honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.

This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I've been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled "Pacifism's Coma" and "The Trauma Theory".

But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It's a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I'm sure it's not) and that's why I'm so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.

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